American Anthropological Association Changes Opposition to Open Access – Plus a Proposal to Do More

The American Anthropological Association, responding to controversy over a January 12th letter sent to the White House opposing further federal support for open access, has issued a new statement that removes that opposition and embraces a diversity of publishing models moving forward. The Association’s Executive Board announced yesterday:

Acknowledging the Association’s commitment to “a publications program that disseminates the most current anthropological research, expertise, and interpretation to its members, the discipline, and the broader society,” but also the need for a sustainable publication strategy, and building on the Association’s support for a variety of publishing models, the AAA opposes any Congressional legislation which, if it were enacted, imposes a blanket prohibition against open access publishing policies by all federal agencies.

In an equally welcome move, the AAA’s Committee for the Future of Electronic and Print Publishing (CFPEP), the executive committee in charge of making recommendations on how the AAA publishing program should move forward, issued an invitation for commentary.

Anthropological publishing is undergoing rapid change as digital technologies, new forms of presentation, and an increasing desire to move to the free distribution of knowledge unfold. Whether existing models of publishing can be sustained is questionable. The AAA is currently assessing its own publication program and seeking to understand how that articulates with the wider realm of anthropological publishing. We need to understand current and emerging trends in the dissemination of knowledge so we can position the AAA to support its members in their intellectual activities.

The AAA Blog highlighted two video-taped sessions from the annual meeting in Montreal sponsored by CFPEP. Available through Vimeo, the first session addresses Core Services of the AAA Publishing Program and the second Sustaining the Future of AAA Publishing.

The new AAA statement from the Executive Board has its strong and its weak points. On the weak side, opposing a “blanket prohibition against open access publishing policies” does not exactly embrace open-access publishing. It does not even support the current federal position, that federally-supported research carries obligations of “preservation” and “public access.” This policy is generally enacted through creating open-access publications hosted by the federal government twelve months after federally-funded research is published in a peer-reviewed journal.

On the positive side, the AAA does emphasize the importance of a diversity of publishing models moving forward, balanced with the need to have a “sustainable publication strategy.” The Association also recognizes the need to be vigilant about “proposed legislation that aims to limit dissemination of research, and that may disproportionately protect private over public interests.”

If I were to improve the Executive Board statement, I would have liked to have seen a stronger commitment to increasing access to anthropological research, rather than just highlighting the diversity vs. sustainability dynamic. More explicit support for getting our research out to multiple publics, and ensuring that the communities where we do our research have access to results, would also have been welcome.

On Costs

In many ways, the Executive Board statement marks a return to our present stalemate. The American Anthropological Association publishes twenty-two journals, and at present few of those are economically viable. Heavy weights like American Anthropologist and Cultural Anthropology subsidize the publication of the many small section journals, alongside membership dues. Solving this problem is the core issue we face, as it is the major blockade to embracing open-access alternatives.

Since many AAA members are committed to maintaining section journals and to continuing to have access to hard copies of these smaller journals, a shift to eliminate smaller journals or to move to all-electronic publishing is generally seen as a non-starter. At present, one of the only viable ways to support all these print journals is through a contract with a major private publisher like Wiley. The costs are hiding our research behind a pay-wall and a continued emphasis on small-scale efforts that rarely reach beyond the discipline.

A switch to greater access would increase the reach of our research to both the public and to scholars in other fields, and also invite more interdisciplinary reading and interaction within the field. But the financial costs are significant, as Michael Brown outlines in AAA Publishing: The Matter of Costs on the AAA blog. Yet the benefits are many, and well described and documented in Duke University Library’s statement to the White House. I provide some relevant excerpts from both Brown’s post and Duke’s letter, and other sites as well, at the end of this post.

To sum up the situation, AAA members appear to face one of two options: (a) keep working with private publishers and a closed-access system, and (b) pay some more, likely in membership costs and in author fees, to support open access while also cutting costs through elimination of print copies. Part of option (b) can be mitigated by working more closely with libraries, which have budgets to acquire materials, just the same as publishers.

The third option, which the government is considering expanding, is to force greater public access through legislation and taxpayer support. Private publishers don’t like it much because it cuts into their profits, but such legislation might significantly lower the costs on option (b).

The AAA Book Review

As Brown points out, the scholarly world is moving increasingly to an electronic approach. Taking advantage of that is key to our continued success as anthropologists, and to the continued success of our professional associations. As I have argued before, building electronic platforms for anthropology is one key way to move forward.

To that end, I want to make one proposal about what to do. Jason Jackson has proposed that we go after “low hanging fruit” in the move towards open access, using the example of the annual meeting program. I think book reviews represent another low-hanging option.

William Davis’ letter to the White House finished with the statement, “In anthropology and in the humanities, book-length publication is still a meaningful publication unit. Journals play a critical role in the success of these works by reviewing books and publications. In 2010, AAA’s publications published 411 book reviews. If the AAA journal publishing program cannot be sustained, it may be that university presses and other scholarly publishers of book-length works could also be irreparably damaged.”

I propose we combine all book reviews done across the AAA journals into one digital platform – AAA Book Reviews. That has a nice ring to it.

There are many advantages to this move to one consolidated platform for book reviews:

-AAA Book Review will increase interaction across the discipline and across sections by having all book reviews accessible in one spot.

-At present book reviews are wasted space in expensive print journals. They barely count for tenure and promotion; the extra space could be dedicated to getting more research into our journals and/or simply eliminated, to cut costs.

-There is already a precedent. Ethos, the journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, only publishes its book reviews online.

-The AAA Book Review will greatly increase the accessibility of these book reviews, since they won’t be behind a pay wall and search engines like Google will now include the reviews in their results.

-There is the potential for revenue from such an arrangement, for example, by having a deal with Amazon where a percentages of purchases that come through the site are given back to the organization or including some modest advertising as part of the overall website.

-They will increase sales of our books. Who goes from a printed book review directly to a purchase? Online, such sales will only be a click away.

-The steady stream of content – 411 reviews in 2010 – present a good model for online platforms, where frequent updates generate greater traffic (and thus greater weight from search engines) while the entire site is easily archived and is accessible through a variety of means, from category and word searches to month-by-month review.

AAA Book Reviews will bring a vibrant new platform to the Association, and permit the Association and relevant editors and reviewers to gain experience with what building and running a platform is like. It will also foster experimentation with an open access model that could become the basis for more ambitious undertakings, such as moving an entire journal to open access. Finally, it will get us to read each other’s work more, and let the public have access to these wonderful books and all our ideas about them.

Some Relevant Posts on the Open-Access Debate

Jason Baird Jackson, Another World is Possible: Open Folklore as Library-Scholarly Society Partnership

I believe, on the basis of a lot of time spent over the past five years with university librarians around the Midwestern U.S., that the research library community would much rather work with scholarly societies collaboratively in the shared real and digital spaces in which scholars and librarians (and students) already labor together rather than engage antagonistically in a neoliberal marketplace that has been shaped by the business practices pioneered by firms such as Elsevier, Springer and (yes) Wiley-Blackwell.

Donna Lanclos, Open Access, AAA and the Dilemma of Scholarly Communication in a Digital World

AAA just finished a long journey towards a new code of Ethics, and presented it at our annual meetings last Fall. To do this, they gathered a committee of a variety of different anthropological practitioners, and they started not by asking “what do you want in a code of ethics,” but, “what do you do to practice anthropology ethically?” By starting (anthropologically) from a place grounded in actual practiced, they could work towards a code that actually reflected the lived reality of anthropologists on the ground.

I think that something similar might be done with a publishing model. How are anthropologists getting information about their field now? What does that look like? What kinds of scholarly communications are they producing? What forms does that communication take, how are they disseminating the information and analysis they produce? What parts are digital? Which are analog? How much takes place in face-to-face interactions? Why?

Duke University Libraries, Response to Request for Information on Public Access to Peer-reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting from Federally-funded Research
*via Donna Lanclos, and a very good overview of the issues involved. The statement below could apply equally well to the dynamics within anthropology, and of anthropology with the public, our research partners, and the places and peoples who take part in our research.

A broad and comprehensive collection of federally-funded research publications across a wide variety of disciplines will foster discovery and thus support innovation. The ability for more people to discover unexpected opportunities and interdisciplinary connections is a key to this benefit. Public access will foster subsequent research at a much faster pace than is currently the case. Also, public access takes account of the near certainty that there are unexpected readers and users who can innovate in ways not anticipated by the original researchers or their funders.

John Hawks, American Anthropological Association Keeps It from the People

I suggest that the closed access policy has contributed to the irrelevance of AAA journals. Nobody outside the AAA membership notices when papers of note are published there. The AAA journals, including American Anthropologist have effectively cut themselves off from the rest of the academic world. The “half-life” is high not because new papers are steadily building more citations, but instead because their impact is anomalously slight compared to papers from 50 years ago…

Public access to research results is the right direction for anthropological research. Davis is obviously wrong to write that “easy access to original research articles in journals” is available to the communities affected by anthropological research.

Doug Rocks-Macqueen, How the American Anthropology Association Is Throwing the Public under the Bus and Killing Books for No Good Reason!

The real irony is that by defending journals the AAA is actually killing books. The prices of journals are increasing above inflation (estimated at 6-8% for 2012) and have so for decades. In the 1990′s when prices of journals were going up by 10% a year most library switch from spending 40% of their budgets on books to 30% while journals went form 60% to 70%. In 2002 “the ratio was roughly 83:17 serials to books” for universities in Australia. In 2007 the Southern Illinois University Carbondale only spent 10% of their library budget (all budgets are for acquisition and not total library budgets) on books and were worried that a raise in periodical prices would wipe out their book budget.

Kerim Friedman, How Do We Mobilize Anthropologists to Support Open Access?
*Kerim solicited ideas and comments about how to get more traction for the open access movement. The thread is at 30 comments and counting. Go add your own thoughts!

And if you still want more, here are two related Neuroanthropology posts:

Digital Anthropology: Projects and Platforms

The Digital Return: Digital Repatriation and Indigenous Knowledge

And Jason Antrosio over at Anthropology Report has been keeping up with all the coverage of the open-access controversy in the post, Anthropology Blogs Respond to AAA on Open Access

Finally the Committee for the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing posts:

Michael Brown, The Future of AAA Publishing: Opening a Conversation
*This post highlights the complexities involved in scholarly publishing, and what a move to open access represents – costs, an established system of review, open access is often “author pays,” effective archiving, and teasing out the AAA institutional costs from the AAA publishing costs. Twenty-four comments made it a strong opening conversation.

Michael Brown, More on AAA Publishing: The Matter of Costs
*They are not trivial, and a move to digital publishing doesn’t solve too much.

In 2010 AAA used $900K of membership dues to cover the costs of the publishing program. If AAA were to eliminate subscriptions, keeping the membership subvention the same, we would need to eliminate $1.4M in costs. About $500K could be shed to eliminating print copies, but the membership subvention would still need to grow to twice its current size.

Are AAA members prepared to take on that cost? I have no idea.

For a counter-argument, see The 30 Pieces of Silver the American Anthroplogy Association Sold Us Out For. Also, the model does not have to be either/or – there are “low hanging fruit” that can be readily made open access, argues Jason Jackson.

Michael Brown, Rethinking Peer Review
*Can digital publishing foster new types of peer review? Brown considers the options and evidence here.

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19 Responses to American Anthropological Association Changes Opposition to Open Access – Plus a Proposal to Do More

  1. Sarah says:

    A solid, sensible idea that would benefit everyone. I’m curious to see on what grounds AAA could find this objectionable.

  2. John Hawks says:

    I agree that putting the book reviews online-only is a smart idea, and the update frequency would be much more blog-like, building traffic and generating more interest.

    On the other hand, there is the danger that the book reviews are not the chaff in the paper journals, but the wheat. In the average copy of American Anthropologist, the book reviews are the only things I want to read. Can it be that the journals today are mostly floated by reviews?

  3. In response to the idea about online book reviews: a good model for this may be Bryn Mawr Classical Review ( It’s the online book review clearinghouse for classics (Latin & Greek art, archaeology, language, etc.) books. In the field of classics, a book is everything (often one book is all that’s required for tenure). If a field that relies on books can move to online, completely free reviews, surely anthropology can. Plus, adopting a model like BMCR would indeed increase visibility of the various anthropologies. I read BMCR (as a Roman bioarchaeologist) to see what new ideas are coming out of the field and where I might contribute now or in the future.

  4. Thanks Daniel! I am glad that Kristina Killgrove mentioned BMCR. It is a crucial case study. Two of the projects that have followed in its distinguished footsteps are the The Medieval Review (formerly Bryn Mawr Medieval Review) and the Journal of Folklore Research Reviews (JFRR). I hope to say more in a blog post, but here are a couple of key points.

    The Medieval Review is already published in a library based partnership here at Indiana University (see my recent post on libraries as partners) and JFRR (published in my home department) will likely be moving similarly toward more close integration with IUScholarWorks and thereby with Open Folklore. These are the kinds of projects that I have been talking about and Indiana University Libraries is, of course, not the only library engaging in them.

    The second point is that these efforts can be gotten off the ground at very low cost. The first year of Museum Anthropology Review focused totally on reviews and it was based on a free blogging platform (before MAR moved to the IU Libraries and Open Journal Systems.). During that time, we used the IUScholarWorks repository as the preservation back-end, just as TMR does and JFRR probably will. In other words, there are cheap, off the rack tools available as well as proven strategies.

    TMR, JFRR, and BMCR are distinctive because they are primarily email services (although the content also lives online in other ways/places). While not everyone loves the idea of more email, they have proven very attractive to many in their fields, including those who are not particularly Internet savvy. JFRR now has just under 1000 (no cost) subscribers and they love getting several book (and other media) reviews by email each week. The subscriber list and the contributor lists keep growing. The main hard cost is mailing out books to reviewers. Such projects can start small but they also scale up really well, particularly if there is good technical advice behind them at the start. The main point is that we already have models for doing this sort of thing.

    The history of book review publishing in the AAA has been really complicated over the past 10 years, with a number for partial experiments and changes of course. I could narrate that another time, but I would say that I do agree with Bill Davis about the vital role played by book reviews. For a time in English-language folklore studies, the book review genre had become rather neglected. They were taking forever to get published and the number for books being reviewed in the major journals was actually and proportionally really small. (See Michael Smith’s comments on the same dynamics in Latin American archaeology.) Book publishers were moving away from the field and they did report frustration at the fact that folklore books were not getting reviewed, making it harder to thereby sell books in the field and more broadly casting a negative light on the field. My colleagues started JFRR as a spin off of the Journal of Folklore Research to address this problem and they seem to be succeeding admirably.

    I think that a new book review architecture for anthropology is a great idea. It could be done by or with the AAA but it can also be accomplished in a wide number of other ways. For the AAA there are built in contradictions to doing it, as the reviews published in the AAA system are a crucial source of revenue and critical mass in a toll access undertaking. While it is possible to show how an open access book review architecture can be build in a sustainable, interoperable, open, and sophisticated way for modest costs, it may be hard to convince AAA leaders to sacrifice either revenue or the governing model of a diverse portfolio of publications that all reside in the same basket. There have already been proposals for peeling away individual publications and publishing them differently, but there remains strong resistance to this for a host of reasons.

    Cultural anthropologists who value book reviews on ethnographic topics will get a lot out of subscribing to JFRR. The back files can be sampled at:

    With reviews going back to 1993, find the The Medieval Review at:

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  6. Megan says:

    While it’s a lovely statement, it is not what ended up in the permanent record as the official response to the proposa so for the present, it doesn’t matter much. While it’s nice to see things moving forward, I wish they’d make up their mind. It’s like the Komen/PP ordeal – instead of shifting course midstream, perhaps there should have been more discussion before making big public statements. Now damage has been done.

  7. Worth throwing into the mix. Josh Wells (IUB), and Myself are currently working on on putting together a completely open access, born digital pub called the Annual Digital Archaeology Review. We’re working very closely with University of Michigan’s mPub. I’d be happy to share the planning documents with anyone who is interested.

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  12. Open Access says:

    i’ll agree to everyone saying about article review online. but it required some other concepts like to post in blogs and etc.

  13. Pingback: Blog Archive Getting Digital at the #AAA2012 Meetings | Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative

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